~ Reflection on the Spiritual Journey (2) ~
Last month, I wrote a reflection on the spiritual journey as a downward path. This month, I want to build on what I said and say something about more about this journey.
Often times, the spiritual journey is described as a linear and progressive path - whether it's up or down. As if it was something that developed step-by-step over time. Something with a beginning, a middle and an end. But in my experience, this is only one way of looking at it, and it can often be better represented as a winding and unpredictable path. A path in which I take a step forwards, only to take a step back, or a step sideways. A path that is uncertain, unmarked and may have a some cul-de-sacs along the way or even entirely disappear for a while.
The idea of making linear progress is deeply embedded in our minds, as well as in the dominant western culture. Indeed, it seems natural – simply the way things are. And in general, progress is seen as a good thing. That moving forwards to attain pre-set goals or outcomes is desirable.
As you consider the contents of the preceding paragraph, you might pause to inquire whether this is true for you. How many of your actions are motivated by a desire for progress, or to achieve something, or to improve something? Probably most of them.
This deep-rooted desire to make progress explains why, at some point, every meditator asks themselves something like “Am I advancing on the spiritual path?” or “Is my meditation improving?” or “Am I getting better?” I remember when I was learning to meditate, I asked myself these questions almost every day, and sometimes I still do. I think I even asked my Tibetan teacher if he thought I was improving.
Although the idea of making progress can help to inspire and motivate us, it isn’t always useful. This is because it can be a set-up - a guarantee that we won’t measure up to some goal we’ve set for ourselves. For instance, if I want to become the perfect meditator - whatever that is – I am setting ourselves up for failure and a lot of anguish and disappointment. In addition, wanting to be perfect may indicate that we have doubts about our own abilities and are questioning our adequacy as human beings.
Instead, we can see the spiritual journey as mysterious and unpredictable. We might wish the path was systematic and orderly, but most of the time this is not the way it usually works. For me, it’s more like a labyrinth, a deepening spiral, or a dance around the still point, the center of all things. And on this journey, there are numerous ups and downs, openings and closings, arrivings and departures, times of light and times of dark.
Sometimes it can be helpful to look back on the journey and reflect on the challenges we have faced and worked through in the past. Then we can see how courageous we have been and inspire ourselves to keep on going, when the going gets tough. But looking forward at the journey ahead as a predictable path can limit the possibilities and potential of this grand adventure of life.
So I invite you to let go of the idea of making progress, and instead to fully immerse yourself on the journey. Let it take you wherever it takes you. Abandon any pre-determined goals and outcomes and give yourself to making the path as you walk it. Exploring the terrain as you go. And on this grand adventure, you may find yourself returning to where you started and knowing the place for the first time.
For more on progress on the spiritual path, watch the video here.